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Sunday, 28 May 2017

Bank Holiday Reflections

Britain's two May Bank Holidays are relatively recent introductions. One, brought in by a Labour government, was an indulgence to the left wingers who wanted the May Day tradition of Marxist parades and speeches to become part of the British way of life: no chance! The other, that is taking place tomorrow, is an expression of the secularisation of the United Kingdom and the inadequacy of the contemporary church establishment: it replaces 'Whit Monday' which, certainly in the north-west of England where I grew up was the greatest show of religious adhesion [and of the disparity between Roman Catholics and Protestants].

Whit Sunday was when Jesus' Apostles realised that they had received extraordinary powers of communication, and the self-confidence to become preachers of the faith even though Jesus himself no longer existed in human form. It comes seven weeks after Easter, when Christians believe Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to various of his followers until his Ascension into heaven, which is remembered ten days before Whitsunday. The seven week gap between Easter [a movable feast] and Whitsun allows the weather a good chance to get much better, so out-of-doors celebrations were more likely to be able to be staged. Women and children got new clothes to celebrate the day, which could then be worn through the summer. On Whit Monday every church had a procession through the local streets, with banners and scout bands; and it was a matter of pride for the clergy to get the biggest possible turnout of adherents, however little those people were involved with the church through the rest of the year

As people drifted away from the churches, and the churches became wishy-washy shadows of their former selves, so the state captured the Whit Bank Holiday and moved it away from the religious commemoration. As people have become more affluent, the idea that they would buy their summer clothes for a specific date then use them through the year is increasingly remote from their memory [if they are old] and the whole concept seems incredible for the younger generations to take in. It would be impossible for a revivified church - if such a thing were imaginable - to put the clock back to the relatively poor and simple way of life that made such a big thing of a second-rank Feast of the Church.

In the nineteenth century Karl Marx has written that religious observance was the 'opium of the people'. The masses could not afford opiate drugs, and there was a huge prejudice against anyone who made himself or herself unfit for work by ingesting or inhaling such substances. But the churches tried to provide a total framework for living. Besides Sunday services and Sunday Schools [for men, women and children] there were weekday 'classes' for women and for men, men's social institutes with billiard tables and smoking facilities, 'field days' when the whole church congregation would go to a field and enjoy games, races, and a substantial high tea [no alcohol allowed to Methodists]. Just as drugs are fashionable now, so participation in the whole range of church activities was fashionable until the affluence of the nineteen sixties gave people more choices: they could go out in their cars, join golf clubs and generally participate in a new consumerist world. Marx's comment was truer than he knew: and when time-consuming church activities were no longer needed to alleviate the misery of life in a small terraced house with minimum furniture, a large family and a very restricted diet, the whole thing died.

It is not a matter of regret: it is simply a socio-economic phenomenon that has occurred. The only sad aspect to it, is that few people now remember about it, and it is not an aspect of social history  that it has ever been fashionable to write about.

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